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The for­mer colum­nist has seen it all, and then some, cov­er­ing the Red­skins

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS -

In the first in­stall­ment, for­mer colum­nist Paul Woody shares sto­ries from four decades of cov­er­ing the Red­skins, col­lege

hoops and more.

A Sun­day night NFL game filled with fool­ish­ness, in­ept­ness, drama and head-bang­ing plays led to a lot of head scratch­ing.

In Novem­ber of 1997, the New York Giants came to FedEx Field for a game against the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins. Nei­ther team was set­ting the league afire.

Norv Turner was the Red­skins’ head coach. Gus Frerotte was Wash­ing­ton’s quar­ter­back, and ap­par­ently, felt he was much ma­ligned for his fairly in­con­sis­tent per­for­mances.

On this night, Frerotte’s frus­tra­tion over­flowed. Near the end of the first half, he ran into the end zone for a touch­down. Gen­er­ally, that makes play­ers happy.

This one seemed to have the op­po­site ef­fect on Frerotte.

He stopped to spike the ball an­grily to the ground and then ran un­til the con­fines of the sta­dium dic­tated, he could run no more.

At that point, he be­gan bang­ing his head against the sta­dium wall.

It was quite the sight. Frerotte’s ac­tions did not come with­out con­se­quences. He suf­fered a sprained neck and could not play the rest of the night.

Later that same night, the Red­skins were driv­ing for what seemed to be the game-win­ning field goal in a game ev­ery­one watch­ing just wanted to see come to an end.

Wide re­ceiver Michael West­brook made a catch near the side­lines, only to be ruled out of bounds by the of­fi­cials.

West­brook dis­agreed. He tore his hel­met from his head and smashed it to the ground.

Penalty flags flew. The Red­skins lost 15 yards for West­brook’s un­sports­man­like con­duct and were taken out of field goal range.

The game went into over­time. It ended in a 7-7 tie, which is not easy to do.

The ac­tion between the lines was not mem­o­rable. What was said af­ter­ward never will be for­got­ten.

“I never thought I would have to tell some­one not to bang his head against the wall,” Turner said in his postgame press con­fer­ence.

A fair point.

In his 15th NFL sea­son, Red­skins fu­ture Hall of Fame cor­ner­back Dar­rell Green had seen many things in his ca­reer, but that Sun­day night left him think­ing there now was just one thing left to see in an NFL game.

“I guess if I play long enough,” he said, “I’ll see a deer run across the field.”

Sev­eral years later, Joe Gibbs — in his sec­ond era as the Red­skins’ head coach — was hold­ing a post-prac­tice press con­fer­ence. As he talked, sev­eral deer am­bled across the field.

Green, how­ever, had long since re­tired.

Over the course of a long ca­reer, the games tend to blend to­gether. In a 16-game NFL reg­u­lar sea­son, Games 8-12 tend to get lost in some sort of cos­mic mist. Dur­ing the in­ter­minable col­lege bas­ket­ball sea­son, non­con­fer­ence games in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber lose all sig­nif­i­cance. Many had little sig­nif­i­cance when they were played.

From the first jump ball of the sea­son un­til the last bas­ket of con­fer­ence tour­na­ments, only one thing mat­ters in col­lege bas­ket­ball. Is the team go­ing to make the NCAA tour­na­ment?

Those are the games that count. Those are the games you re­mem­ber.

To pick one mem­o­rable game is not pos­si­ble. In my ca­reer, it has to be three: VCUKansas in the 2011 Southwest Re­gion cham­pi­onship game in San An­to­nio; and Vir­ginia’s two games in the 2019 Fi­nal Four in Min­neapo­lis — against Auburn in the semi­fi­nals and Texas Tech in the cham­pi­onship game.

VCU was on a mag­i­cal run in 2011. The Rams, then mem­bers of the Colo­nial Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, were one of the last teams se­lected for the field and were sent to Day­ton for a play-in game against South­ern Cal. The Rams then eas­ily dis­patched Ge­orge­town and Pur­due be­fore gain­ing a last-sec­ond vic­tory over Florida State.

If you’re keep­ing score at home, VCU had throt­tled op­po­nents from the Pac 12, Big East, Big Ten and ACC, all home of bas­ket­ball elites.

Then came Kansas, a No. 1 seed, deep, con­fi­dent and a po­ten­tial na­tional cham­pion.

I re­mem­ber two things vividly from that Southwest Re­gion cham­pi­onship game.

First, Bran­don Rozzell dropped in sev­eral 3-point­ers early in the game that he seemed to have shot more from Kansas than against Kansas.

VCU built a sub­stan­tial lead. Kansas came back, and the Jay­hawks were on the verge of go­ing from hav­ing mo­men­tum to tak­ing con­trol of the game.

VCU needed a bucket. Joey Ro­driguez, VCU’s se­nior point guard, had the ball at the top of the key. Ro­driguez’ pre­vi­ous shot had been an air­ball from the left cor­ner.

No way he shoots now, I thought.

Ro­driguez shot. Noth­ing but net. Kansas’ run was stopped. VCU was on its way to the Fi­nal Four.

The Vir­ginia-Auburn game can be summed up in four words: Kyle Guy’s free throws.

Fouled as he at­tempted a 3-point shot from the left cor­ner, with Vir­ginia trail­ing by 2, Guy went to the foul line with .6 sec­onds left in the game.

All that was at stake was the sea­son, a chance to play for the na­tional cham­pi­onship and ca­reer-defin­ing shots.

Guy made the first two. Auburn called a time­out. Guy made it clear he wanted his coaches and team­mates to leave him alone. Then, he walked back to the line and made the third free throw.

That put Vir­ginia in the cham­pi­onship game against Texas Tech.

Vir­ginia led at half­time and surged to a dou­ble-digit lead in the sec­ond half.

Hail to the Cav­a­liers!

Texas Tech ral­lied and led by three with 12.9 sec­onds left. The Cav­a­liers were not so hail.

Then, Vir­ginia’s De’An­dre Hall, who had scored 5 points in the first half, hit a 3-poin­ter from the right wing for his 17th point of the sec­ond half to force over­time.

In OT, Vir­ginia led, trailed, trailed, trailed and then gained a lead it would not re­lin­quish.

Af­ter watch­ing the 2018 tour­na­ment — in which Vir­ginia be­came the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, Univer­sity of Mary­land Bal­ti­more County — this was a rather fan­tas­ti­cal end­ing to the 2019 sea­son.

Joe Gibbs can fill your note­book and tape recorder with clichés. He can be the mas­ter of say­ing plenty while care­fully and pur­pose­fully say­ing noth­ing.

But if you’ve known him for a while, and if he trusts you, he’ll show you a side most don’t get to see.

Gibbs has a self-dep­re­cat­ing sense of hu­mor.

And as an NFL coach, he had a clear re­al­iza­tion of what he had to do to keep his job.

Win.

It was that sim­ple.

In 1985, the team got off to a slow start. Four games into the sea­son with a 1-3 record, Gibbs tried to jolt the team into ur­gency by re­leas­ing sev­eral play­ers.

The team didn’t re­spond as he hoped.

So, he went back to what he knew best, pad-crush­ing, bone­jar­ring phys­i­cal prac­tices on Wed­nes­days and Thurs­days.

When things be­gan to turn around — the Red­skins fin­ished 10-6 but didn’t make the play­offs — Gibbs turned pen­sive af­ter prac­tice one day. He started talk­ing about how he had made the mis­take of try­ing the nurse the team through the reg­u­lar sea­son and get to the play­offs. He said he re­al­ized that was a mis­take and the team had to get back to what had got­ten them to two Su­per Bowls, phys­i­cal prac­tices.

A num­ber of us had known Gibbs for a while. One of us, me, ac­tu­ally, started ask­ing Gibbs ques­tions, all of which be­gan with, “Hy­po­thet­i­cally speak­ing ...” such as, “Hy­po­thet­i­cally speak­ing, if there was a coach who mis­judged how to get through a sea­son, hy­po­thet­i­cally speak­ing, and things started to fall apart, hy­po­thet­i­cally speak­ing, would you think, hy­po­thet­i­cally speak­ing, that coach would get fir- ...”

I didn’t fin­ish that sen­tence be­cause Gibbs had, not hy­po­thet­i­cally but quite play­fully, put his hands around my neck. Gibbs can take a joke.

Then there was the post­prac­tice in­ter­view ses­sion dur­ing Gibbs’ sec­ond ten­ure

as the Red­skins’ head coach. The 49ers were next up, in San Fran­cisco, and Clifton Brown, NFL writer for The Sport­ing News, asked Gibbs if he’d ever won in San Fran­cisco.

“I don’t know,” Gibbs said. “You’d have to ask him.”

And Gibbs nod­ded to­ward me. By then, I was the only writer left who had been through ev­ery sea­son of Gibbs’ time with the Red­skins, start­ing in 1981.

“No, he hasn’t,” I said.

Gibbs shook his head, looked at Brown and said, “See what I have to put up with?”

Hey, you asked. I saw all those games. Was I sup­posed to say, “No­body plays the 49ers the way Joe Gibbs’ Red­skins play the 49ers”?

Gibbs, of course, has gained equal fame as the owner of a NASCAR team. His drivers have won mul­ti­ple cham­pi­onships. Gibbs fol­lows the same for­mula in rac­ing as he did in foot­ball: Get the best peo­ple, get the best spon­sors, which means get­ting the most money, and set ex­pec­ta­tions high.

In 2010, JGR came to thenRich­mond In­ter­na­tional Race­way, now Richmond Race­way, and took first (Denny Ham­lin), sec­ond (Kyle Busch) and fourth (Joey Logano).

On his way out of the me­dia room af­ter the pos­trace press con­fer­ence, Gibbs stopped at my seat and said, “What do you think of that?”

I said, “Is that the best you can do? Why didn’t you go 1-23? Do you think if you spent less time in Logano’s pit, he might drive bet­ter?”

No­body laughed harder than Gibbs.

When Gibbs coached foot­ball, he once said the play­ers wanted two things more than any­thing else: more money and days off.

“I can’t give them more money,” Gibbs said. “But I can give them days off.”

He al­most al­ways gave the team Mon­days off af­ter a vic­tory on Sun­day.

He also gave his play­ers some­thing else — the con­fi­dence to know he had their backs on and off the field. The play­ers re­spected Gibbs, feared him, liked him, ad­mired him, un­der­stood he ran the show and that he was a first-bal­lot Hall of Famer.

The play­ers knew re­peated mis­takes, es­pe­cially mak­ing the same mis­take over and over, would cost them their jobs. They also knew that one mis­take, such as los­ing a phys­i­cal bat­tle to a su­pe­rior player, would get them word of en­cour­age­ment and a thank you for the ef­fort from Gibbs.

Here’s how I know that.

The Red­skins had lost a close game in Philadel­phia on a Sun­day af­ter­noon late in the sea­son. The game had come down to the fi­nal play. The Red­skins needed a touch­down and were in­side the Ea­gles’ 5-yard line. Mark Ryp­ien was the quar­ter­back, and he tried to throw a quick pass into the front of the end zone to, I think, Ricky San­ders.

But Reg­gie White, one of the great de­fen­sive ends in NFL his­tory, broke through the line, pres­sured Ryp­ien into throw­ing early, the pass was in­com­plete and the Ea­gles won.

Late the next af­ter­noon at Red­skin Park, three of us were stand­ing out­side the locker room, wait­ing, I sup­pose as we al­ways were, for one player or an­other to come out and say little or noth­ing, when Gibbs walked by.

He stopped to chat.

Af­ter a cou­ple of min­utes, one of us — not me this time — said, “Hey, what hap­pened on that last play yes­ter­day?”

Gibbs bor­rowed one of our note­books and a pen, mine I think, and started draw­ing the play. One of the block­ers was sup­posed to have got­ten on White’s in­side shoul­der and driven him to the out­side. But White was too quick, was through the line al­most be­fore the blocker could move and went straight at Ryp­ien.

One of us — not me this time — said in an “Oh, I un­der­stand now” sort of way, “So, it was his fault,” and he said the player’s name.

Gibbs’ eye­brows arched, and there was an ever so slight edge in his voice as he said, “We’re as­sign­ing blame now?”

Gibbs al­ways knew a coach needed good play­ers to win. He also knew one of the most im­por­tant things he could con­vey to the play­ers was they won and lost as a team.

Yeah, you think watch­ing a quar­ter­back sprain his neck by bang­ing his head into the wall af­ter scor­ing a touch­down is crazy.

Silly for sure. But maybe the cra­zi­est thing I’ve seen in an NFL game came sev­eral years be­fore Frerotte made his mem­ory.

Things were go­ing ter­ri­bly for the Red­skins in 1993. Gibbs had re­tired late in the pre­vi­ous off­sea­son, and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Richie Petit­bon had been pro­moted to head coach. The Red­skins had all kinds of in­jury and salary cap prob­lems. Petit­bon couldn’t set­tle on a quar­ter­back, and the Red­skins went from be­ing a vet­eran team to be­ing an old team very, very quickly.

On Satur­day, Dec. 11, the New York Jets came to RFK Sta­dium. The Jets were on their way to an 8-8 sea­son. The Red­skins would fin­ish 4-12.

The game had all the mak­ings of a non-clas­sic — two teams go­ing nowhere with one, the Red­skins, des­tined to fire the head coach and start a seem­ingly never-end­ing re­build­ing process.

It wasn’t a bit­terly cold day, 43 de­grees for the 12:30 p.m. kick­off. But the wind was mov­ing at 20 miles per hour, the press box at RFK was open air (it had no win­dows) and it made for a raw, bone-chill­ing af­ter­noon.

The Jets scored on a 45-yard field goal by Cary Blan­chard in the first quar­ter.

And that was it for the scor­ing, un­til ...

Late in the game, the Jets drove deep into Red­skins ter­ri­tory. The drive stalled. Blan­chard came on to at­tempt a field goal that was little more than an ex­tra point. His holder was Louie Aguiar, also the Jets’ punter.

The teams lined up. Aguiar crouched and had his head down, look­ing at the spot where he knew Blan­chard wanted the ball held.

The ball!

Sud­denly, it ap­peared out of nowhere. Ac­tu­ally, the cen­ter had snapped it, which came as a sur­prise to Aguiar. He had yet to look up from the spot he was eye­ing. Then, the ball drilled him in the side of his hel­met.

Haven’t seen any­thing like that since.

Travel is a big part of the sports writ­ing busi­ness. And it’s not such a bad part. But hey, it’s not all nice restau­rants with fresh seafood in San Diego or Mi­ami or white choco­late bread pud­ding in New Or­leans.

Nope, go­ing on the road is full of haz­ards. First, you gotta go to the games. Read­ers want it. Ed­i­tors de­mand it. Ed­i­tors can be so in­flex­i­ble some­times.

Then, you’ve got to burn off all the calo­ries from all those meals.

I was a run­ner. It led to a few ad­ven­tures.

I got lost while run­ning in Green Bay on a Mon­day morn­ing af­ter a Sun­day game. You wouldn’t think it would be that dif­fi­cult to get around in down­town Green Bay. But if you don’t keep track of all your turns, you end up see­ing places on your way back to the ho­tel you hadn’t seen on your way from the ho­tel.

I re­mem­ber think­ing I was go­ing to miss my plane and have some ex­plain­ing to do. Some­how, I found the turn

I’d missed and didn’t miss my flight.

I got lost in New Or­leans, twice, and in Mi­ami and Buf­falo. In Buf­falo, I was so turned around that when I saw a po­lice car at a stop­light, I asked the of­fi­cer how to get back to my ho­tel. He started to ex­plain, but it was so com­pli­cated he said, “It will be eas­ier if I just take you there.”

Nice guy. Gave me ad­vice on some good restau­rants in town.

Some­times get­ting lost isn’t the worst thing that can hap­pen.

Lost a rental car once. Now that’s not easy.

It was in Pontiac, Mich., when the Detroit Lions played at the Sil­ver­dome.

Pontiac is not con­ve­niently lo­cated to the Detroit air­port. You had a choice to make. Stay in the ho­tel in the air­port, get up early and drive the hour or so to the game and the hour or so back af­ter the game.

Or, stay near Pontiac and take your chances on the hour or so drive to the air­port, in rush-hour traf­fic, on Mon­day morn­ing. Come close to miss­ing your plane out of Detroit once, and you’ll not make the mis­take of stay­ing near Pontiac again.

On this trip, Jim Du­cibella — my good friend and col­league from the Vir­ginian Pi­lot — and I opted to stay at the air­port.

On game day, we left early, beat the traf­fic, reached the sta­dium and pulled into a park­ing spot that was about 20 yards from the press gate. That never hap­pens. We couldn’t be­lieve our good for­tune, which, we told each other sev­eral times, was a re­sult of our ex­cel­lent plan­ning.

Af­ter the game, we went to the car. There was a prob­lem.

The car wasn’t there. It’s a long walk or an ex­pen­sive cab ride to the Detroit air­port from Pontiac. Worse yet, I’d rented the car. I was go­ing to have a lot of ex­plain­ing to do.

We looked around, won­der­ing if we were con­fused and had parked else­where.

I’m in a con­stant state of con­fu­sion, but we still didn’t find the car.

We went to the se­cu­rity desk in the sta­dium and said some­thing like, uh, we had a car when we ar­rived and now, we have no car.

The guard asked where we’d parked. We told him. Oh, he said, just be­fore the game ends, they tow those cars out of there so no one gets blocked in.

Good to know. Would have been bet­ter to know about eight hours ear­lier, knowl­edge be­ing power and all that.

But at least we could get the car now.

Or could we?

The se­cu­rity guard wasn’t sure where the towed cars were taken.

This seemed a crit­i­cal piece of in­for­ma­tion and a break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, knowl­edge be­ing power and all that.

A few min­utes later, we were in the se­cu­rity unit’s SUV, driv­ing around the sta­dium park­ing lot, look­ing for a rental car. We drove around and around. We drove be­hind snow­banks. I think that’s where we fi­nally found the car, parked be­hind a snow­bank.

Ah, good times.

If you’re go­ing to a foot­ball game, col­lege or pro, the best place to go is Pasadena, Calif., for a game in the Rose Bowl. Pick a game, any game, and go. You’re not go­ing for the game. You’re go­ing for the at­mos­phere.

As they say about ex­pen­sive restau­rants, you can’t eat the at­mos­phere. But at the Rose Bowl, you can drink it in. The set­ting is mag­nif­i­cent. The Rose Bowl has 91,000 seats, but the rows are so deep, the sta­dium doesn’t feel that big.

And this lovely bowl of a sta­dium sits in the shadow of the San Gabriel Moun­tains. The view is al­most breath­tak­ing.

I haven’t been there many times, but it made an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion.

The No. 2 venue would be Jack Mur­phy or Qual­comm or SDCCU (San Diego County Credit Union, now there’s a lyri­cal name for a venue) Sta­dium or what­ever they’re call­ing the sta­dium in San Diego now.

It al­ways should be Jack Mur­phy Sta­dium be­cause Jack Mur­phy was a sports writer who was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting the place built.

The sta­dium is OK, but you don’t go to San Diego for the sta­dium. You go for the per­fect weather, for the fresh seafood, for the zoo, for the easy-to-use mass tran­sit, and did I men­tion the weather? Ev­ery time I’ve been there, the weather has been per­fect. Sunny. No hu­mid­ity. The weather is so good it seems to put a little gid­dyup in your en­dor­phins and get your bio­rhythms thump­ing on all cylin­ders.

With weather like that, you don’t care if you your rental car is parked be­hind a snow­bank some­where in the park­ing lot of a sta­dium in Pontiac, Mich.

2019, DEAN HOFFMEYER/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Kyle Guy’s three free throws in the fi­nal sec­ond against Auburn last April put the UVA bas­ket­ball team in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game. They also set the stage for an­other un­for­get­table game against Texas Tech and helped the Cav­a­liers find re­demp­tion af­ter they were ousted in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tour­na­ment.

2011, DEAN HOFFMEYER/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Bran­don Rozzell was con­grat­u­lated by his fa­ther, Michael, and his grand­mother, Con­nie Sa­muels, fol­low­ing VCU’s vic­tory over top-seeded Kansas in the 2011 Southwest Re­gion fi­nal. On his 22nd birth­day, Rozzell played a ma­jor role in the up­set with his out­side shoot­ing in the first half.

1997, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Red­skins quar­ter­back Gus Frerotte eluded Giants de­fen­sive line­man Greg Bishop for a touch­down late in the first half of their NFC East matchup on Nov. 23, 1997. A few sec­onds later, how­ever, Frerotte lost his bat­tle with a sta­dium wall at FedEx Field.

2019, SKIP ROW­LAND

NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs ad­mired a fan’s Wash­ing­ton Red­skins cap be­fore last spring’s Toy­ota Own­ers 400 at Richmond Race­way. Dur­ing his decades cov­er­ing sports, colum­nist Paul Woody saw Gibbs claim cham­pi­onships as Red­skins coach and in NASCAR’s top se­ries.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Paul Woody ar­gues that any game in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., is a must-see event.

JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Janet and Paul Woody took a bow in Jan­uary when Woody re­tired fol­low­ing four decades at the Times-Dis­patch and News Leader.

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